Letter from Thessaloniki

“Due to city traffic, Olympic Airways flight 0175’s departure will be delayed. The co-pilot and one of our crew members are stuck in the Athens traffic.» This happened some days ago, on Dec. 19 to be precise, and it concerned a flight from Athens to Thessaloniki and Munich. Now, if someone had told me that story, I would have laughed at the humor of it. But it just happened that I was a passenger on the aforesaid flight. «Are we ever going to get into third gear?» I asked – hours later – the cab driver who was driving me from Macedonia Airport to Thessaloniki city center. At first, he declined to answer. Being in the proper mood, I felt a bit like a Fellini film star. Like Marcello Mastroianni to be precise, in the role of Guido in the film «8 1/2.» For those who do not remember, the movie opens with the scene in which Guido Anselmi, the film director, is seen sitting inside his car in the middle of a traffic jam in an underground passageway with no apparent destination. The scene is stifling, claustrophobic. Nothing is moving. Guido is trapped. Fumes come out of a car’s dashboard. A man – typical of Fellini’s freak-show casting – is suffocating and desperately trying to escape. Yet the doors won’t open and the windows won’t roll down. There is an atmosphere of panic and frustration in the movie, just as in the heart of Salonica these holy days. «It wouldn’t be the New Year’s holiday if thousands of us weren’t on that last-minute scramble – running to the revenue office and doing our shopping at practically five minutes to midnight!» my distressed cab driver finally uttered. More than Athens, Thessaloniki has a subject that obsesses its citizens, a dinner topic that elicits endless opinions and horror stories. It is not crime or taxes, nor the high cost of housing or the perpetually lousy services of taxi drivers. It is traffic. With three one-way main streets running parallel to each other in the city center, the traffic jams in Nikis, Tsimiski and Egnatia avenues at Christmas time are legendary. The situation really deteriorates during the season of good cheer, when all the city’s 1 million-plus citizens seem to be on the road simultaneously. However, it just seems that way; statistics produced by the appropriate institutes of the University of Thessaloniki reveal that if all the registered cars were on the road at the same time, it would be even worse: Lines of traffic would stretch far beyond the city limits. When, back in August 1917, a devastating fire destroyed 80 percent of Salonica, only part of the city was rebuilt according to the grand plan of the French architect Ernest Hebrard – between 1922 and 1923. A unique opportunity to create a modern city was missed. How did we get into this state? Lack of city planning, for one. Spyros Vouyias, a professor at the university here, and only recently deputy minister of transport until he lost the municipal elections as PASOK candidate for mayor a couple of months ago, did not help his native city sufficiently. It would surely help if the possibilities for people to do business with state institutions electronically were increased, as with banks over the Internet, but just try taking the liberty of doing that with some Greek state service. Calls for citizens to avoid taking their cars to the city center are, of course, to no avail. The automobile is regarded as a vehicle not of onward, but of upward mobility. The make and model of one’s car, preferably a BMW or a Mercedes – no rare brands in our little town – seem to give the owner his place in the social pecking order. Car dealers in the north of Greece rarely appeal to practicality, mileage or comfort, but to «prestige» and «the demonstration of your achievements.» If the nouveaux riches insist on swanning into the city center in their showy cars, no wonder the streets quickly get congested. Sure, there are buses here but those are for «the underclasses and for the proles» as my good friend Michalis, a civil engineer from Kastoria in his 40s, put it. He boasted, only the other day, that he has never seen the inside of a local bus, in his nouveau riche nasal whine. Yet the worst traffic is reserved for the evening, and around the amusement district of Ladadika, near the port. The city’s gliteratti, who are seldom very learned, do not greatly worry about fines – amounting to 61.50 euros for illegally parked vehicles, or 32.50 euros for double parking. In Jean-Luc Godard’s prophetic 1967 film «Weekend» – bearing in mind that Thessaloniki is the place for film festivals – there was that irksome, 10-minute tracking sequence of a traffic jam. In this film, which ends with a woman chewing on a piece of roasted human flesh, nobody was going anywhere, either. How pleasantly unsophisticated and naive a Greek film from the same decade appears nowadays, with similar scenes and Aliki Vouyiouklaki in «The Woman Driver.» The strange thing is that seasonal traffic jams mingle with the holiday jingle at malls and stores, as well as with evidence of financially troubled times. Many Thessaloniki shoppers appear this year to have set stricter holiday rules for themselves in a year rocked by layoffs, economic stress and uncertainties over war and terrorism. Only toy stores still prove that they can draw crowds even during trying times. Does this signify that only children have the right to dream? In Fellini’s dream sequence in «8 1/2,» the dream is a nightmare freighted with the symbolism of modern alienation: each of us trapped in his own lonely automobile, all of the automobiles trapped in a traffic jam, everyone going nowhere. Finally, Mastroianni struggles out of the car window and miraculously floats his way out of the tunnel where the traffic has got stuck and soars up to heaven, a freed spirit. That’s why I want to be Mastroianni. That’s why I want to fly away to Tallinn, Estonia, where cars are not allowed in the old part of town. That’s where I shall be when you read those lines. Happy New Year!

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